If I were to try to diagram a breakdance set it might look something like a constellation—or more like a time lapse of rockets or shooting stars: a series of explosive flashes connected by blurry streaks of motion. There is something mathematical about it the way a breaker’s body finds the most efficient means from point to point, a physics experiment performed each time a dancer’s legs swing suddenly over his head on the fulcrum of a thick forearm. If you watch him practice, each calculation becomes visible: a thousand repetitions of the right positions like solving a Rubik’s cube over and over. But in the middle of a jam, the uncontrollable cyclone of backspins, handstands, and flips— sometimes barreling into spectators and judges—seems to happen at the speed of light, so fast it has to be done by feel. A guy steps inside the circle and, if he’s good, tricks become dance propelled by a beat. Boy becomes b-boy transformed by the energy of the crowd around him, all of their backs to the world.
I am watching this go down, breakdance battle after battle for more than six hours, in a gym in the middle of Harvard University of all places. But then again, I came to their jam—called Breakeasy—with Yale’s team. I travelled to the jam in Boston with the only two breakers who could make it: my friend Cesar, whose b-boy name is Cesare (pronounced like Italian: CHESS-aray), and a freshman named Anton, who uses his given name. Yale’s team is not big: there were two other guys at a practice earlier that week, one Yale breaker is injured, and another graduated last year.
Breakdance de-cyphered: A rookie’s glossary
Jam: A breakdance competition, refers to the whole event
Battle: The competitive part of the jam in which two dancers perform sets (30 second routines) against one another before a panel of judges.
Cypher: Between battles or during practice, breakers take turns inside the circle doing freestyle sets
B-boy or b-girl: A break dancer, often self-titled with a creative name, also called a breaker.
Crew: A team of breakers, also self-titled.
Top rock: moves done standing up, usually the means of entering the circle
Down rock: footwork done on the floor. The most classic example is the six-step.
Power moves: Tricks like handstands, flips, or spins using the floor. Examples follow.
Windmill: Spinning on the upper back/shoulders with the legs in the air in a Y.
Halo: The same spin as the windmill, but pivoting on the back of the head.
Flare: Pushing off the hand or elbow to hop into the air with the legs off the ground.
Threading: Tying or untying knots with the body. For example, grabbing the right ankle with the right hand and pushing the left leg through.
By the time things get started there are maybe 50 or 60 dancers in the gym; at some of the biggest in the U.S. there can be 600. The breakers are mostly men of color: about half of them are black, a third are Asian, and the rest are Latino and white. Break dance is blowing up in Asia, Cesar tells me—the best dancers are coming out of South Korea these days.
The Asian presence surprises me initially—I guess because there is no way to trace the history of this dance except through “street” culture, out of black American youth. The guys explain the genealogy of breaking to me through James Brown’s 1969 “Get on the Good Foot” and South Bronx street gangs organizing into dance crews. Since the ’70s and ’80s breaking has taken off: now there are World competitions, professional b-boys making livings on prize money, and Harvard-sponsored jams.
Cesar is originally from Tehachapi near Bakersfield, California, and is of Mexican heritage. A Latino kid growing up in a mostly white part of town, he learned to break with one of his high school friends and from YouTube videos in his garage. “I was walking along Venice beach during sophomore year of high school one summer and I saw these dancers on the boardwalk and I saw someone do what was called a handglide [spinning on your hands] and I was like ‘that’s cool,’ so I spent months training for it in my garage,” he remembered. “And that particular year, junior year, I took a dance class [in high school] so I had dance mats. We were learning square dancing, but when we weren’t dancing I would practice [the handglide] and eventually I got it and it was not that hard and I just kind of went with it. And then my one friend taught me a six step. And then by the end of the year I was better than him and I had a backspin. My backspins are very good. I don’t practice. They’re professional. People get scared when they see my backspins.”
“That’s usually how the dance is taught,” Cesar explained: passed on in group practices from one body to the next. “It’s very communal, very open to anyone who wants to try. That’s what we try to emulate at practices [at Yale].”
From the university, the Yale break team doesn’t get—or require—much institutional support or recognition. Like all students, they have swipe access to dance studios in the residential colleges, and organize informally. For once, the line is not so bold between Yale students and New Haven residents. Rather the circle is organized to include b-boys and b-girls from aspirational to professional, separated from the rest of us by the hours they put in to practice, and by their commitment to the lifestyle. In fact, Yale breakers regularly practice with New Haven’s professional break crew, United Outcast. From the crew, Cesar has spent the most time with a guy called b-boy Lokito. “We danced with him so much freshman and sophomore year that he was basically part of our team,” Cesar told me. “Sometimes he brings his whole team [to practice]. You’ll see the Stiles dance studio packed with [the Yale crew] but then you’ll have like ten other guys that are like professionals so it’s just extremely full.” Apparently, Lokito has partied so much with a Yale breaker who is a member of AEPi that he was dubbed an honorary fraternity brother.
Yale’s team is small this year, but Princeton’s is huge—they have a dance culture like we have a singing culture—and Harvard dancers and students make up maybe a third of the crowd at Breakeasy. In my observation, the emergence of breakdance inside the Ivy League is not only about the changing face of breakdance, but also the changing faces that populate universities like Yale: less white, less wealthy. The other two guys at the Yale practice with Cesar and Anton, wearing baggy t-shirts blasting hip-hop, turned out to be a grad student and a post-doc, both in the sciences.
It’s not that there aren’t growing pains in a changing movement culture. Cesar probably has to spend as much time making himself legible as a breaker to Yale students as he does explaining himself as a Yale student to other break crews. There was an uncomfortable moment walking around Boston earlier that day when I asked Cesar and Anton what their mothers thought of their breakdance habits. Cesar said his mom is generally supportive, if a little worried about injuries. Anton answered honestly that his mother didn’t like him going to the “parts of town” where jams happen. It went without saying but he put it baldly: poor and black. “She doesn’t get it,” he said.
I don’t know how the other dancers felt spinning inside Ivy walls, but on the gym floor Harvard University was hardly in charge. Notably, no one is wearing any Harvard or Yale apparel, teams are announced by their b-boy names with no mention of their university affiliation, and it is almost impossible to tell on sight who is “from” Harvard and who is “from” Boston.
Higher profile jams, bigger pools of prize money, and shifting demographics have done remarkably little to change the culture of a battle or a cypher. The dance itself requires almost nothing but a body. The only relevant piece of equipment I see all night is a spin cap, a beanie with a shiny panel on top for head spins, but most of the best guys don’t have them. It’s about time—and showing up—more than anything. In a documentary Anton recommended called Inside the Circle, one of the main b-boys talked about an up-and-coming Texas crew called Masters of Mayhem. As country kids without much money or much else to do, he said, they’ll probably get really good at breaking. In the movie they win the big jam in an upset.
Before one round of battles, the judges, three black men, get up and do a showcase: one set each. The MC introduces them like “all right y’all now the judges are gonna get up and show you why they’re in their judges’ seats. They’re gonna demonstrate their commitment to this culture and this lifestyle.” Cesar explains that getting respected judges—guys known on the circuit—is what draws the best dancers to a jam. “I think the breakdance jam is the closest recreation of the classic hip hop block party that doesn’t really happen anymore. In terms of energy, positivity,” he said.
We show up to the gym early, around 6:30 p.m., while they’re still setting up. A few guys are stretching and eventually the MC comes in and starts clowning around doing exaggerated ballet changements in his sneakers and freestyle rapping to check the mic. A DJ starts scratching records as more crews roll in. Cesar and Anton nod to some of the guys from Connecticut—out of Harford mostly, with one 16-year-old kid from Bridgeport.
The first round of battles gets going around 7 p.m. with guys still cyphering on the sides. At this jam, breakers compete in pairs: two against two with one set from each dancer. Some of the teams break into synchronized choreography or use each other like springboards to jump off or over each other into a set, but most of the time they alternate solo sets.
I ask Cesar what he thinks about when he steps into the circle. He’s not sure; he says by that point he’s focused on a series of moves he’s trying to hit. A typical set lasts about 30 seconds and is pretty formulaic: the b-boy enters the circle with a top rock, kind of like a boxer floating around on his toes, then he’ll sit down into some floor work—endless riffing on a six-step—before he explodes into some power moves. Finally, the breaker pops back up on his feet and aims a pose at his opponents across the circle: feet planted and hands on hips like “show me what you got.” Repeat. As my eyes adjust, I can tell the really impressive moves from the just-good ones: it’s a big deal when a guy can do a flare that sends him into the air from his elbows or if he can keep doing a bunch of halos in a row. “Yeah, I’ve seen all those moves before and I can do most of them in isolation,” Cesar tells me after. “It’s the combinations I can’t do.”
Once I’ve seen a dancer cycle through a few battles and cyphers, I start to pick up on his signatures: Cesar can change positions so many times in one round of backspins it’s like watching a flipbook. The kid from Bridgeport, dressed in a red plaid shirt, gold wire-rimmed aviator glasses, and black Nikes, has huge biceps and can practically chill in a one-handed stand. But what really strikes me about his sets is his humor: he’ll get right up in the face of his opponent, jump around grabbing his crotch, slide into a playboy-spread pose on the floor with a huge grin.
“See that guy?” Cesar points to a short Latino guy in a black t-shirt with sleeve tattoos standing around the edge of a cypher circle. “That’s El Niño.” It turns out that this guy, based out of Boston, made it to the World Finals of one of the biggest international competitions, the Red Bull BC One, last year and his presence at Breakeasy has sent ripples through the room. But to see him on the floor I can hardly pick him out: he’s not surrounded by an entourage or anything. I’m only reminded of his status when he dances, by the noise of the crowd and the “oh shit look at that move” gestures of respect.
In a profile on the Red Bull BC One blog called “Wild Card Winner’s Circle: El Niño,” the interviewer asks: “Q: You’re often described as a ‘true’ B-Boy. Why is it important to keep this heritage alive?” He answers:
A: A true B-Boy is someone who has a fresh and original style, not just explosive moves and no style. … It’s important to be yourself, express yourself and dance the way you want to—not the way the next man wants to. Your own flavor, combined with explosive original moves should be the goal for the new gen.
In the thrill of seeing your friend breakdance after school or watching the first guys circle up for a cypher, the tricks loom large. Later the conversation is something like “Dude did you see that [handstand/backflip/air splits]?!” But if you watch for a while, you can see that they’re dancing. You have to get the stunts to get in the circle, but it’s the dance that makes the best guys the best. El Niño’s power is only partially in the way he can spin on his head like a coin on its edge—the other part is about something much harder to see. It’s the tail of the shooting star—not it’s fire but it’s streak—that illuminates the universe’s interstices for a flash.
I’m sitting on the floor right behind the line that marks the circle for dancing when El Niño’s team is up for the top eight battle. It’s genuinely surprising when El Niño freezes in a handstand, kicks back up to a top rock then goes back down into floor work. He flaunts his control of the space with a series of alternating head- and backspins right up to his opponents then whips his legs around on his hands and lands back in the center like “you can’t touch me.” He slides, freezes, handstands and gets down matching the rise and fall of the music. Unlike a sequence of tricks, this can’t be planned. It all depends on the space and the song playing whenever you happen to be up. Cesar and Anton call it “musicality.”
I’ve been using “he” pronouns to refer to a generic breaker in this essay not by default, but because it feels like a dance developed with a male prototype. The technique not only seems to preference a male physique—muscular and straight for stacking up on itself—its performance wears masculine energy like cologne. At the jam, there are two b-girls competing. Neither of them break to the top 16. There are also a few young kids stunting during the cyphers. Besides the thrill of the novelty, seeing female or prepubescent bodies rock the same steps exaggerates the mechanics of performed aggressive maleness everyone was putting on: an almost-landed punch, a crotch-grab, a come-at-me face to finish a set—all dissolved with a judge’s ruling and a handshake.
Asking incessant questions about breakdance this weekend has been complicated by the fact that it doesn’t have much standardized terminology; moves fall into broad categories but don’t have specific names. There’s a reason a battle is judged with a simple gesture to the winning team (or crossed arms for a tie) and not numerical scores in set categories or any system of points. It’s sort of done by feel.
It’s the dance itself that’s communicative, a movement language performed in its most literal sense. You dance at people. Your most direct audience members are also your opponents; the guys cheering you on in a cypher might become your competitors in the next hat draw. There’s a relationship developed by proximity, by appreciating a guy’s style or his signature moves, or from dancing up against the same guys in battles all over the circuit. I won’t make any claims about seeing a breaker’s true self on the gym floor, but there’s an aura that appears around a dancer when he starts to move—an ethereal energy about him that you can only see from up close, that only lasts for the set. You might only know a guy’s b-boy name, might never have heard his voice, but after five or six hours in that gym, he’s spoken to you all the same.
Eleanor Marshall is from Iowa City, Iowa and currently lives on an organic produce farm in Mansfield, Georgia. At Yale she studied Anthropology. Breakeasy was her first jam, but as a kid she did ballet, tap, and modern dance. This piece was originally written for a course on dance writing.